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The examination of the text of The Lay of Igor’s Host

 

The Historical Basis of the Subject of The Lay of Igor’s Host. The events forming the basis of the subject of the Lay are set out in the chronicles in the following form.134

On April 23, 1185 Igor, Prince of Novgorod-Seversky,[1] set off on a campaign against the Polovtsians. He was accompanied by his son Vladimir, who reigned in Putivl, and his nephew Svyatoslav from Rylsk. On the way they were joined by a fourth campaigner, Igor’s brother Vsevolod, Prince of Trubchevsk. The eclipse of May 1, 1185 (described in detail in The Laurentian Chronicle) alarmed the princes and their men; they saw it as a bad omen, but Igor persuaded his allies to continue the campaign. The scouts sent on ahead also brought bad news: the Polovtsians could not be taken by surprise, so it was necessary either to attack at once or to turn back. But Igor believed that if they returned home without giving battle, they would condemn themselves to disgrace “worse … than death”, and continued to advance towards the Polovtsian steppe.

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. The Polovtsians Raid the Russian Land and Are Resisted by the Russian Princes. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. The Polovtsians Raid the Russian Land and Are Resisted by the Russian Princes. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

On the morning of Friday, May 10, they overcame the Polovtsians and seized their tents and wagons. After this victory Igor intended to turn back at once, before other Polovtsian forces arrived. But Svyatoslav, who had ridden far in pursuit of the retreating Polovtsians, objected that his horses were tired. The Russians spent the night in the steppe. Next morning they saw that they were surrounded by hordes of Polovtsians. “They had assembled the whole Polovtsian land against themselves,” as the chronicle says. A fierce battle was waged all Saturday and Sunday morning. Suddenly the Turkic warriors sent to help Igor by Yaroslav of Chernigov turned and fled. In an attempt to arrest their flight Igor left his band and was taken prisoner. The Russian host suffered a crushing defeat. Only fifteen men managed to get back to Russia.135

After defeating Igor the Polovtsians launched a counterattack. They devastated the left bank of the Dnieper, besieged Pereyaslavl-Yuzhny, which was heroically defended by Prince Vladimir, captured the town of Rimov and burnt down the fortifications of Putivl. A month after the defeat (Boris Rybakov estimates) Igor managed to flee from captivity. These are the events of 1185 as recorded by the chronicle.

The Ideological Content of the Lay. The author of the Lay turned this isolated, although tragic episode in Russo-Polovtsian warfare into an event of national dimensions. It is no accident that he summons to Igor’s aid not only the princes who had a direct interest in this campaign, since their appanages could have become the object of Polovtsian incursions, but also Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest of Vladimir and Suzdal. The author of the Lay persistently stresses the main idea of the work: the need for unity between the princes in the struggle against the steppe nomads, the need to put an end to strife and war between the individual feudal lords, in which the princes received assistance from the Polovtsians on this or that side. The author of the Lay does not object to the feudal relations of his age that establish the appanage system (with all the unfortunate consequences of a divided Russia). He merely objects to the internecine strife, the violation of other people’s lands (“this is mine, and that, too, is mine”),[2] and argues the need for the princes to live in peace and to obey their senior in rank, the Grand Prince of Kiev. This explains why the victories of Svyatoslav of Kiev are praised so highly in the Lay. It is he who reproaches Igor and Vsevolod with having set off to “seek glory” for themselves, and bitterly censures the princes who refuse to help one another in the struggle against the foe. The author of the Lay even seeks to stress the seniority of Svyatoslav by the fact that, in spite of their actual relationship, the Prince of Kiev in the Lay calls his cousins, Igor and Vsevolod, his synovtsy (nephews), and the author calls him their father (Igor and Vsevolod roused the evil which was “put to sleep by their father, the great, the terrible Svyatoslav of Kiev”):136 because he is their suzerain, their feudal head.

The same idea, the need for princely unity, underlies the historical digressions of the Lay. The author reproves Oleg (addressing him as Gorislavich—“of bitter fame”—instead of using his real patronymic, Svyatoslavich) for stirring up inter­necine strife by his actions. He proudly recalls the age of Vladimir Svyatoslavich, the age of Russian unity, but now the pennons of Rurik and David “float apart”.137 This persistent and clearly expressed patriotic idea of the Lay was formulated by Karl Marx as follows: “In essence, the poem is a call for unity on the part of the Russian princes just before the invasion by the Mongol hordes proper.” 138

The genre of the Lay is unusual. It is not a military tale in the proper sense of the term. The author does not describe the events of 1185 in detail. He reflects on them, assesses and examines them against the background of a broad historical perspective, almost against the whole of Russian history. And it is these genre peculiarities of the Lay that also determine the originality of its composition and its system of imagery.

The Composition of the Lay. The Lay begins with a lengthy introduction, in which the author recalls the ancient bard, the wise and skilled Boyan, but nevertheless declares that in his work he will not follow this tradition, but will begin his “song” in accord with the events of his own time, and not with the poetic imagination of Boyan.

Having fixed the chronological span of his narrative, from “Vladimir of old” (i.e., Vladimir of Kiev who died in 1015) to “Igor of our own days”, the author tells of the Prince of Novgorod-Seversky’s bold intention to lead his hosts against the Polovtsian land, to “drink of the Don water” with his helmet (drinking from an enemy river is a symbol of vanquishing the foe). The author seems to be trying to adapt the poetic manner of Boyan to his theme (“No storm is this that has blown the falcons beyond the rolling plains: the daws are fleeing in flocks towards the Great Don!” or “Steeds neigh beyond the Sula—glory resounds through Kiev!”).

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. Mounting the Stirrup. Defending the Battlements. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. Mounting the Stirrup. Defending the Battlements. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

In joyous tones the author portrays the meeting of Igor and Vsevolod the Furious Bull, praising the valour of the men of Kursk. All the greater the contrast with the following story about the terrible omens that mark the arrival of Igor’s host on Polovtsian soil and presage the tragic outcome of the campaign: these are the solar eclipse, the strange, sinister sounds in the dark night, and the cry of the fantastic creature called the Div. Although he goes on to describe the first victory that brings the Russian princes some rich trophies, the author again returns to the theme of the terrible omens of imminent defeat: “A blood- red dawn foretells the day. Black clouds come up from the sea…”

The account of the second battle, fatal for Igor, is interrupted by a digression. The author recalls the age of Oleg Svyatoslavich, an appanage prince who appears at the end of the seventies, and again in the latter half of the 1090s as the instigator of a series of internecine wars. This historical digression introduces a theme to which the author of the Lay returns over and over again, the condemnation of princely strife in which the birthright of “the grandsons of Dazhbog” perishes. But those bloody battles of the past cannot be compared with Igor’s battle against the Polovtsian hosts that surround him: “From morning till evening, from twilight till dawn steel-tipped arrows fly, swords clang upon helmets…” And although the battle is taking place in the remote Polovtsian steppe, the consequences of Igor’s defeat will be felt all over the Russian land. Nature itself grieves for him: “the very grass droops with pity, and the trees bend down”.

Again, leaving the tale of Igor for a while, the author of the Lay narrates all the misfortunes of the Russian land, saying that the Russian princes themselves who stir up strife against one another are to blame. Only the unity of all the Russian forces against the nomads will guarantee victory, as can be seen from the defeat inflicted in 1184 on the Polovtsians by Svyatoslav of Kiev when the Polovtsian Khan Kobyak was taken prisoner.

The author goes on to tell of Svyatoslav’s dream that predicted grief and death for him. The boyars interpret the dream: the bad omens have already been fulfilled—“two suns have grown dim”, Igor and Vsevolod have been defeated and captured. Svyatoslav reproaches the princes for their rash seeking after glory, their untimely campaign, and laments the lack of help from the other princes.

Continuing Svyatoslav’s address, as it were, the author of the Lay appeals to the most valorous and influential of the Russian princes, praising them and urging them to avenge “the wrong of these days”, to avenge Igor. But for many of the princes the time of glorious victories is past, and the reason for this is again the internecine wars. “Lower your banners, and sheathe your blunted swords! Far, far have you fled from your forefathers’ fame!” the author urges them. And just as earlier he recalled the age of Oleg, son of Svyatoslav, now he turns to the figure of another militant prince of the past, Vseslav of Polotsk. Vseslav likewise was not victorious, in spite of his temporary triumphs (“with his spear-shaft he touched” Kiev’s “golden throne … burst open the gates of Novgorod shattering Yaroslav’s fame”) and even the superhuman qualities ascribed to him (he is able to move from one place to another with incredible speed, has the gift of second sight, and is a prince-werewolf).139

Then the Lay again turns to the fate of Igor. In Putivl Yaroslavna is praying to nature to help her husband and free him from captivity. It is typical that this lyrical lament, constructed on the basis of a folk lament, contains the social motifs characteristic of the whole work. Yaroslavna is concerned not only about her husband, but about his men. She recalls the glorious campaigns of Svyatoslav of Kiev against Khan Kobyak. Yaroslavna’s lament is closely connected with the following account of Igor’s escape from captivity. Nature helps him: the River Donets speaks kindly to him, the jackdaws, ravens and magpies are silent so as not to betray the position of the fugitives, the woodpeckers show them the way, the nightingales regale them with their song.

The dispute of khans Konchak and Gza on what to do with Igor’s captive son Vladimir continues this account of the prince’s flight full of symbols taken from the realm of nature: Igor “flew like a falcon” to his native land, and the khans decide the fate of the young “falcon”. It is interesting that here, as in other passages of the work, two types of metaphors are combined—military symbols (the “falcon”—the brave warrior) and symbols from folklore, in this case originating in the symbolism of wedding songs, where the bridegroom is a “falcon” and the bride a “fair maid”, a “graceful swan”.140

When speaking about the present, the author of the Lay constantly recalls the past, searching there for edifying examples, analogies. He recalls first Vladimir Monomachos, then Oleg, son of Svyatoslav, then Vseslav of Polotsk.

The epilogue of the Lay is festive and solemn: returning to Russia Igor comes to the great Svyatoslav in Kiev; “the hamlets rejoice, the towns are merry”. And the Lay ends with a toast to the prince.

The Genre of the Lay. The composition of the Lay is unusual for an historical tale. We see that the author concentrates not so much on a consecutive account of the actual events of the campaign, as on reflections on it, an assessment of Igor’s conduct, reflections on the causes of the hard times and sorrow that beset the Russian land and a turning to the past with its victories and misfortunes. All these features raise the question of the work’s genre. This question is all the more important, because in Old Russian literature with its strict system of genres, the Lay (like a number of other works) would seem to be outside the genre system. Andrei Robinson and Dmitry Likhachev compare the Lay with the genre of the chanson de geste, drawing analogies between the Lay and the Chanson de Roland, for example, or similar works of the West-European feudal epos.141

Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor's Campaign. The First Battle with the polovtsians. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. The First Battle with the polovtsians. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The epic and bookish elements are united in the Lay. “The epos is full of appeals to defend the country…” writes Likhachev. “Its ‘direction’ is characteristic: the appeal seems to come from the people (hence the folklore element), but it is addressed to the feudal lords, the ‘golden words’ of Svyatoslav, hence the bookish element.” 142

The Poetics of the Lay. The poetics of the Lay are so original, its language and style so vivid and distinctive, that the Lay may seem at first glance to lie totally outside the sphere of Russian mediaeval literary traditions.

In fact this is not so. In the portrayal of the Russian princes and particularly the main heroes, Igor and Vsevolod, we find features of styles with which we are already familiar from the chronicle narrative: the epic style and the style of monumental historicism. However blameworthy Igor’s foolhardy campaign, the hero himself remains for the author the embodiment of princely valour. Igor is courageous, his heart is “whetted … with valour”; the desire to “drink a helmetful of Don water”, the concept of a warrior’s honour (“Better to be slain than taken captive”) make him scorn the bad omen, the solar eclipse. His brother Vsevolod and his men are equally knightly: they were swaddled to the sound of trumpets, nursed beneath helmets, fed from the spear’s point, and in battle seek honour for themselves and glory for their prince.

In general the style of monumental historicism manifests itself in the Lay in various profound ways. The action of the Lay unfolds against vast distances. The narrator seems to encompass at a glance all the territory from Novgorod the Great in the north to Tmutorokan (on the TamanPeninsula) in the south, from the Volga in the east to Galich and the Carpathians in the west. In his addresses to the princes the author of the Lay mentions many geographical points in the Russian land. Svyatoslav’s fame spreads far beyond its borders, to the Germans, the Bohemians and the Venetians. The characters in the Lay seem to take a panoramic view of the Russian land, as if from a great height. Thus, for example, Yaroslavna’s lament from Putivl is addressed not only to the sun and the wind, but also to the far-off Dnieper, which she asks to carry her dear husband back to her from Polovtsian captivity. Yaroslav Osmomysl rules his principality in deliberately stressed “spatial” borders, upbearing the Carpathian Mountains and “sitting in judgment even as far as the Danube” (that is to say, ruling the peoples up to the Danube). The actual battle with the Polovtsians acquires universal dimensions: the black clouds symbolising Russia’s enemies come from the very sea.

Mention has already been made of the historicism of the Lay, also a characteristic feature of monumental historicism. The events, the actions and the very qualities of the characters in the Lay are judged against the background of the whole of Russian history, against the events not only of the twelfth, but also of the eleventh century.

Finally, the ceremonial element, the conventions of the Lay, undoubtedly belong to the style of monumental historicism. It is no accident that it contains so many references to such ceremonial forms of the oral tradition as eulogies and laments. And the princes themselves in the Lay are portrayed in ceremonial poses: they step into “golden stirrups” (set off on a campaign), raise or lower their banners (which symbolises setting off on a campaign or defeat in battle), after the first victory Igor is brought trophies. Igor’s capture is also reported as a ceremonial act: the prince exchanges his golden saddle for the saddle of a slave.143

It is also the principles of monumental historicism that determine such a characteristic feature of the Lay as the author’s historical digressions in which the main theme of the Lay stands out in particularly bold relief, namely, the condemnation of princely strife and reflections on the misfortunes of the Russian land subject to Polovtsian incursions. This is why the author breaks off the account of Igor’s battle with the Polovtsians at the very climax and recalls the times of Oleg, son of Svyatoslav, which were equally turbulent and tragic for Russia. Between the account of the falling of Igor’s banners and the description of Igor’s capture is a long discourse on the consequences of the defeat: “Then, my brethren, an evil time set in…” The calamities of the Russian land subjected to a new Polovtsian incursion and even the sorrow felt by other peoples at this, the Germans and Venetians, Greeks (Byzantines) and Bohemians, are mentioned earlier than Svyatoslav’s dream which, judging by the symbolism, he had on the fatal night when Igor was defeated.

In short, the author’s digressions shift (deliberately and intentionally) the actual course of events, for the author’s aim is not so much to recount these events, which were well known to his contemporaries, as to express his attitude towards them and his reflections on what took place. Once having understood these special features of the narrative, we can see that there is no point in discussing precisely when and where Igor and Vsevolod saw the eclipse and how accurately this is recorded in the Lay, exactly how the Polovtsians collected tribute or how advisable it was to appeal to Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest, who was only too ready to interfere in South Russian affairs, to come to Igor’s aid. The Lay is an epic, not a documentary work. It does not so much relate events as meditate upon them.

The epic quality of the Lay is of a special kind. It co-exists with the bookish elements. The author’s reflections, appeals to the reader and the above-mentioned ceremoniality, are all indisputable features of the Lay’s bookish nature. But alongside this is another element—the world of folkore. This world is reflected, as mentioned above, in the eulogies and above all, in the laments (Yaroslavna’s lament, the lament of the Russian wives, and the lament of Rostislav’s mother). However, the references to eulogies and laments and even the presence of Yaroslavna’s lament, which is undoubtedly folkloric in spirit, are by no means the only elements from the world of folklore in the Lay. We find there the hyperbole typical of folklore: Vsevolod can drain the Volga by splashing it with his oars and empty the Don by drinking it from his helmet; Vsevolod the Furious Bull embodies, as it were,’ a whole host—he cleaves his enemies’ helmets with “swords of tempered steel”; the images of the battle-feast, and the battlefield that is likened to a peaceful ploughed field, the images of the wolf, the bull, and the falcon to which the heroes in the Lay are compared. The author also uses standard epithets characteristic of folklore. At the same time the author of the Lay, as Varvara Adrianova-Peretts wrote, “found material for the construction of a literary style of unequalled expressiveness in the popula language which in the twrelfth century contained tremendous possibilities for development, and in the devices of the rich treasury of oral poetry already developed by the poetic genius of the people”.144 A study of the poetics of the Lay, which combines features of bookish poetics close to oratory, and the poetics of folklore, also leads us to conclude that the Lays genre is a special one, as mentioned above.

A characteristic feature of the Lay is the existence within it of two levels—the realist (historico-documentary) portrayal of per­sonages and events and the description of the fantastic world of forces hostile to the Russians, namely, the bad omens: the eclipse of the sun, the forces of nature that are hostile to Igor or warn him of misfortune, the fantastic Div, and the mythological Karna and Zhlya.

Many episodes in the Lay have symbolical undertones, including such apparently naturalistic sketches as wolves howling in ravines or birds waiting in forests for spoils on the field of battle.

Nature takes an active part in Igor’s fate and in the fate of the Russian land: the grass bows in pity and the Donets and the birds who dwell in the groves on its banks gladly assist Igor when he is fleeing from captivity.

This does not mean that the Lay does not contain any descriptions of nature as such. But it is characteristic that, like other Old Russian works, it lacks static landscapes: the world around is perceived in movement, in various phenomena and processes. We are not told that the night is light or dark—“long lingers the night”, the colour of the river water is not described, but we are told that “the rivers run turbid”, the Dvina “flows through fens”, the Sula “no longer sweeps a silvery stream”. The bank of the Donets is not described, but we are told that the river spreads out green grass for Igor upon its silvery banks and drapes him in warm mists beneath the shade of green trees, etc.145

It has been said that the whole “literary system of the Lay is based on contrasts”.146 One example is the contrasting of metaphors: the sun (light) and darkness (night). This is traditional both for Old Russian literature and for folklore.147 In the Lay it is frequently used in different images. Igor is a “bright light” and Konchak a “black raven”, on the eve of the battle black clouds come in from the sea and seek to veil the “four suns”. In his prophetic dream Svyatoslav is covered with a black shroud and given blue (black) wine and all night long dark ravens are croaking. The boyars’ answer is constructed in accordance with the same metaphorical system: “On the third day darkness fell: the two suns have grown dim, the two purple pillars blaze no more… On the KayalaRiver the darkness overcame the light.” Whereas when Igor is returning to Russia from captivity, once more “the sun lights up the heavens”.

The Rhythmic Quality of the Lay. Scholars have long since drawn attention to the rhythmic quality of the Lay and frequently sought on these grounds to examine it as a work of verse. There is rhythm in the work, without a doubt, it is intentional and part of the author’s stylistic tasks, but all the same the Lay is not verse, but rhythmic prose; moreover the rhythmical passages in the Lay alternate with passages in which the rhythm is either different or completely absent. These features are yet further proof that the Lay belongs to the literary school of the twelfth century for we find in it the same features of rhythmic prose as in other works of this period (Hilarion’s Sermon on Law and Grace, Cyril of Turov’s Sermons, and others), namely, repetition of similar syntactical constructions, anaphora (when consecutive fragments of the text begin in the same, or a similar, way) and a special “rhythmic balance”, when “several short syntactical units are followed by one or two long ones; several long ones finish with one or two short ones”.148

A special feature of the language of the Lay is also the author’s striving, as for example Leonid Bulakhovsky has noted, “to combine similar sounding words”,149 to use a distinctive sound pattern.

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. The Second Battle with the polovtsians and the Defeat of Igor's Host. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The Chronicle Tale of Prince Igor’s Campaign. The Second Battle with the polovtsians and the Defeat of Igor’s Host. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The Language of the Lay. The language of the Lay merits careful study not only as the language of a literary work, but also as a specimen of the Russian literary language of the twelfth century. This is all the more important because the sceptics’ assertion that the language of The Lay of Igor’s Host does not correspond to the language of that period plays a most important part in their argument. “The language is the most dangerous thing that they play with without understanding and discredit the work,” wrote Academician Alexander Orlov, challenging the sceptics. “All the available data of the work itself must be clarified and examined”, and only then will “all the peel and crusts such as modernisms Gallicisms, etc. … fall off as totally unfounded invention, and the unprincipled, dilettantist game will stop”.150

In research on the Lay considerable attention has been paid to its lexical analysis, the search for lexical and semantic parallels to the Lay’s lexemes in works of Old Russian literature, and an analysis of the grammatical structure and orthography of the Lay. A most valuable summary of the research done in this sphere up to the 1920s is given in Vladimir Peretts’ monograph.151 But the study of the language of the Lay has attracted particular attention in recent decades: in the definitive study of the work’s morpholog­ical, syntactical and lexical structure by Sergei Obnorsky,152 the sections on the language of the Lay in the histories of Russian literary language by Lev Yakubinsky and Boris Larin,153 the articles comparing the grammatical and lexical structure of the Lay and The Trans-Doniad,154 and numerous other works dealing with individual lexemes and expressions in the Lay.

A most important contribution to the study of the Lay’s language is made by Varvara Adrianova-Peretts’ monograph in which on the basis of extensive material drawn primarily from works of Old Russian literature and documents of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries she shows how well the author of the Lay used “all the devices of Old Russian speech, how skilfully and aptly he selected the best means of expression for each element of the complex content of his work, and how organically he merged them into his own truly unique individual style.”1 Adrianova- Peretts’ book is also valuable because it shows that the Lay has lexemes with the same meanings as those in other works of the period, and also that the Lay conformed to the linguistic norms of the period with regard to constructions, expressions and poetic imagery.

The material collected by Adrianova-Peretts proves beyond all doubt that the Lay belongs to the literature of the late twelfth century. This has also been confirmed by the research of Victor Franchuk who has discovered an indisputable similarity bet­ween the phraseology of the Lay and that of The Kievan Chro­nicle.156

Together with Varvara Adrianova-Peretts’ monograph another definitive work deserves mention, the multi-volume Dictionary- Handbook to (tThe Lay of Igor’s Host” which deals with the whole lexical composition of the Lay, illustrating each meaning of a word with examples taken from hundreds of sources—monuments of Old Russian literature and official documents, folklore, recordings of various dialects. In addition the Dictionary contains all the most important commentaries on the text of the Lay, historical information about the characters in the work, data about the etymology and meaning of individual words used in it, and interpretations of obscure passages.157

In recent decades many articles and notes have appeared giving lexical and poetic parallels to readings of the Lay (the articles by Boris Larin, Nikolai Meshchersky, Dmitry Likhachev, Varvara Adrianova-Peretts, Sergei Kotkov, and others). The comparison of the language of the Lay with that of contemporary dialects is particularly important.158

All these observations lead to the indisputable conclusion that the Lay belongs to those works of Old Russian literature that were created in Kievan Russia in the period of the greatest flowering of its writing and culture—on the eve of the Mongol invasion, at the end of the twelfth century.

The Time When the Lay Was Written and the Question of Its Authorship. Research of recent years shows convincingly that the Lay must have been written shortly after the events it portrays— Igor’s campaign against the Polovtsians. The character of the narrative, the abundant allusions which could have been under­stood only by people alive when the events took place and the relevance of certain problems to the end of the twelfth century— all this does not permit us to accept the hypotheses of such specialists as Dmitry Alshits and Lev Gumilev, who have suggested that the work belongs to the thirteenth century. Attempts are continuing, however, to date the Lay more precisely within the last few decades of the twelfth century. Some researchers believe that the work was written not later than October 1, 1187, the date when Yaroslav Osmomysl died, for he is referred to in the Lay as being alive. However, we know that the addresses to the princes in the work are of a rhetorical nature, and the author could have addressed Yaroslav after his death as well for he was alive during

Igor’s campaign and captivity. The argument that the toast pronounced at the end of the Lay in honour of Vsevolod would have been inappropriate after his death, which was in 1196, and that therefore the Lay was written not later than this date is worthy of attention.159 However, the question of the work’s precise date remains an open one.

No less complex is the question of the Lay’s author. Numerous attempts to establish precisely who wrote the work have mostly taken the form of searching for people alive at the time of the campaign who might have written it. But we possess no direct or indirect evidence that would enable us to give preference to any of these hypothetical authors. It is characteristic that Boris Rybakov, who has produced the most circumstantial hypothesis concerning the author of the Lay, sums up his observations as follows: “We cannot prove beyond a doubt that The Lay of Igor’s Host and the chronicle of the tribe of Mstislav (a fragment of The Kievan Chronicle.—O.T.) were really written by the same person. And it is even harder to prove that this person was the tysyatsky (command­er of the city militia) of Kiev, Pyotr Borislavich. Here we shall probably always remain in the sphere of hypotheses. But the remarkable similarity, verging sometimes on identity, of almost all the features of the two works (taking into account their different genres) does not permit us to reject entirely the idea that these two equally brilliant works were by the same author.” 160 We are bound to agree with his caution. This question remains open for the time being.

We can, however, describe the unknown author. He was a man with broad historical interests and an excellent understanding of the complex political circumstances of his day, who was able to rise above the narrow interests of his principality to the interests of Russia as a whole, a talented writer, who knew and valued Old Russian literature, both translations and original works, and was also well acquainted with folklore… Only the combination of all this knowledge and ability, refined artistic taste, unerring choice of words and sense of rhythm enabled him to create this work which is the pride of Old Russian literature of the earliest period.

The Lay and Old Russian Literature. The question naturally arises as to why the Lay, the literary merits of which have been so highly regarded in the modern period, attracted so little attention in Old Russian literature, and in particular, why there are so few manuscripts of it.

It is hard to give a difinite answer to this, but we can advance a number of considerations in the light of our knowledge of Old Russian literature in general and the fate of individual Old

Russian works in particular. Firstly, all the works had their own individual fate: in the Middle Ages, particularly in Russia of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, a period of feudal wars and Polovtsian incursions, followed by the devastating Mongol inva­sion, a work either disappeared completely because all the copies of it were destroyed, or sank into oblivion, since the few surviving copies of it might remain unknown for a long time for this or that reason. Secondly, after the Mongol invasion the Lay lost its political relevance. It was untraditional in form and complex in language—this too could have been a reason why the Old Russian scribes were not particularly anxious to reproduce existing copies of the Lay. The rarity of its copies, however, did not prevent the Lay from influencing other works of Old Russian literature. Its influence is felt particularly strongly in The Trans-Doniad, the tale of the victory over Mamai on Kulikovo Field, written at the end of the fourteenth century (regarded by some scholars as a fifteenth- century work). Imitating a work that was authoritative or noteworthy because of its literary merits, and quoting or retelling it was customary for mediaeval scribes. And this is what the author of The Trans-Doniad did. But in making use of the narrative about Igor’s defeat by the Polovtsians in his tale of the Russian victory over the Mongols and taking this work with its untraditional, original style as his model, the author of The Trans-Doniad did not always manage to adapt the quotations from the Lay to suit his text. Firstly, some images from the Lay appear out of place in The Trans-Doniad. For example, whereas the Lay says of Prince Vsevolod, who is nicknamed the “Furious Bull”, “You stand at bay, you spray with arrows the host of the foe”, in The Trans-Doniad description of the fleeing Tartars a completely incomprehensible phrase suddenly appears: “The bulls stood in battle.” Secondly, a number of obscure passages in The Trans- Doniad can be understood only as the result of the author’s misunderstanding and distortion of the text of the Lay.161

It has also been discovered that the Lay influenced a seventeenth-century revision of The Tale of Akir the Wise,162 and several manuscripts of The Legend of the Battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians.

Church of Our Saviour on the River Nereditsa in Novgorod. 1198

Church of Our Saviour on the River Nereditsa in Novgorod. 1198

The Lay in Modern Russian Literature. In modern times the Lay has made a great impression on Russian readers. Almost as soon as it was published Russian poets found it rewarding material for imitations and variations on Old Russian themes, and there were endless attempts to produce the best poetic rendering of it. Of the nineteenth-century translations the finest are undoubtedly those of Vassily Zhukovsky (highly regarded by Pushkin), Mikhail Delaryu, Apollon Maikov and Lev Mey; at the beginning of the present century Alexander Blok wrote a poem based on the Lay and Konstantin Balmont translated it. Soviet translators and poets have produced some fine renderings, such as those by Sergei Shervinsky, Vladimir Stelletsky, Georgi Shtorm, Ivan Novikov, Nikolai Zabolotsky and others.163 The Lay is also widely known in translations into the languages of the peoples of the USSR, it was translated into Ukrainian by Maxim Rylsky, into Byelorussian by Yanka Kupala and into Georgian by Simon Chikovani. The Lay has also been translated abroad into Bulgarian, English,164 Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, Serbo- Croat, Spanish, Turkish and other languages.

Let us now summarise the development of Russian literature from the eleventh to the early thirteenth century.

We shall begin with translated literature. Thanks to the copying of Bulgarian originals and direct translations from the Greek and other languages Russia became familiar with many genres of Byzantine literature (or, to be more accurate, the common Slavonic literature-mediator) and, what is more, the finest classical specimens of them. Russia became acquainted with the Holy Scriptures and liturgical books, patristics in both its forms, ceremonial and homiletic rhetoric, hagiography (vitae and pateri- ca), an extensive apocryphal literature and the encyclopaedic genres, such as miscellanies, for example. Russia was introduced to Byzantine chronicles, writings on the natural sciences, the Hex- aemeron, The Physiologos, and the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Russian scribes also had at their disposal various specimens of historical narrative such as the Alexandreid, the History of the Jewish War and purely literary works, such as The Tale of Akir the Wise.

The fact that Russia became familiar with a considerable part of the Byzantine literary heritage is in itself sufficient reason to speak of Russia’s introduction to European culture of the very high level. But scholarship is not yet creation. There is a great difference between the erudite scholar and the writer, the former merely learns, whereas the latter creates, basing himself on the achievements of his predecessors. And this was precisely the case with Russian literature in the early period: it not only learn­ed and absorbed, but created new cultural and historical values itself.

In the course of the eleventh century the rich and expressive Old Russian literary language was finally formed. It was not the Old Slavonic language mechanically transferred to new ground nor the former Eastern Slavonic language of the pre-literary period. Together with the birth of literature a new literary language was formed with the complex interaction of Old Slavonic and Eastern Slavonic linguistic elements at the lexical, semantic, and grammatical levels. This language either took the form of a neutral literary language or, thanks to its diversity, revealed rich possibilities for genre-stylistic gradations.165

Section of the palace ensemble in Bogolyubovo where Prince Andrew Bogolyubsky of Vladimir and Suzdal principality resided. 1158-c.1165. Reconstruction by N. N. Voronin. Plan of the extant section of the palace ensemble in Bogolyubovo

Section of the palace ensemble in Bogolyubovo where Prince Andrew Bogolyubsky of Vladimir and Suzdal principality resided. 1158-c.1165. Reconstruction by N. N. Voronin. Plan of the extant section of the palace ensemble in Bogolyubovo

Something similar took place in literature also. It was not simply that an original Russian literature arose, that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries Russia acquired its own specimens of sermons and religious homilies, its own vitae and paterica, its own chronicles and annals. In all the leading literary genres Old Russian writers are by no means imitators copying out imported specimens like good pupils. The Life of St Theodosius and The Tale of SS Boris and Gleb have an individual, untraditional style that testifies to the high mastery and literary talent of their authors. The Tale of Bygone Years does not remind us of a Byzantine chronicle. It is original in both form and sources, and in the style of its exposition, which is less constrained and more lively and vivid than the style of the Byzantine chronicles.

Even the Old Russian translators found the opportunity to compete creatively with the author of the original, the opportunity to add, to embellish, to “better” his style and narrative manner, as we can see in the translation of the History of the Jewish War, for example.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century we find Old Russian literature fully mature. In almost each genre it had created original works which themselves could serve as models worthy of imitation and determine the future development of the genre on Russian soil. There were also such masterpieces, as Vladimir Monomachos’ Instruction or The Lay of Igor’s Host that stand outside any genre system. Literary styles had been formed, and the Old Russian writers could hold their own in the art of the written word with Byzantine or Bulgarian writers. An example of this is the high literary skill of Cyril of Turov, the author of The Lay of Igor’s Host, and the authors of the stories about the monks of the Kiev Crypt Monastery.

Not only Kiev and Novgorod, but also Vladimir, Smolensk, Chernigov, Galich, Pereyaslavl-Yuzhny and many other Russian towns had become centres of learning and chronicle-writing and possessed large libraries. The intensive development of urban life promised the further secularisation of culture, the expansion of the range of not merely literate, but broadly educated people. In short, at the beginning of the thirteenth century the prospects for Old Russian culture as a whole and literature in particular were very favourable indeed.



[1] A town in the east of the present-day Chernigov Region.

[2]  Quoted from The Lay of the Warfare Waged by Igor, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1981.

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